Craft Essays

Craft Essays

New in our Craft Section, Nuala O’Connor takes stock of her career and what it means to be a published writer, Beth Kephart considers the fear that no one will care about the books we write, and Jody Keisner looks at small moments and beautiful things.

Out of the Iron Cage to Swim

When I think about the writers whose prose makes me groan with gratified envy, Virginia Woolf leads the posse. In her company are Annie Proulx, Sylvia Plath, Anne Enright, Peter Orner, Tania Hershman, and more. This “worship” of writers are stylists, and their sentences sing to me, letting me know that my own scrabbling in...

Circus Act

“How’s that circus of yours?” my father said, and it took me a minute; I paused. It’s this thing we do now—the conversion, the switch, me replacing his nouns with my nouns. Sounds like, looks like, could be— “You mean the book?” I said, in my aha voice. “The picture book with the girl at...

No Ideas but in (Beautiful) Things

Like so many writers I know, my writing-self grew up on “show, don’t tell,” a maxim that demands sensory details and descriptions, action, scenes, and showing, and cautions against too much summary and backstory, exposition, and telling. Unfortunately for me, the advice show, don’t tell! written in the margins of my early attempts at creative...

Nancy Drewing the Essay: A Guide to the Literary Expedition

When I was first introduced to the creative essay, I was gobsmacked. An essay provides the perfect vehicle to explore the self while prying open the larger world. I’ve used the form to wonder and wander my way through topics as wide-ranging as class and gender ever since. It was a match made in genre-heaven....

What Do You Care About? How Compassion Leads to Dynamic Writing

Language is alive. The written word does not sit inert on the page, black symbols on a white background. It reverberates with the intangible of the human experience—suffering, love, pain, self-seeking, self-sacrifice, indifference, generosity— and also concretizes human experience. Literature rises above the anecdotal to meld the intangible with the concrete. How the writer manages...

Impatience and Craft

A few weeks ago, my partner, Jake, wanted to watch the movie Nocturnal Animals with me. The film is about a writer who uses his newfound talent to torment the psyche of his ex-wife who left him years before. Since I’m a writer and also spiteful, Jake thought the movie would be right up my...

Writing as Discovery

On a beautiful July morning in 2004, my husband, three kids, and I headed down the trail to Hidden Lake Overlook in Glacier National Park. The skies were clear, the air warm with a gentle breeze. About a mile down the meandering trail, however, thick clouds rolled in. The temperature plummeted, and we became ensconced...

THE LATEST DRAFT

REVISION ON MY MIND ON REVISION A DRAFT ON REVISION START HERE? THE LATEST DRAFT The hardest part about revision — this is what I woke up thinking today — the hardest part is to sleep on it. In the flush of the moment, two drafts in (or three, or seven, or ten) we might...

How to Untangle Environmental Stories: Five Contradictory Lessons

When we talk about environmental writing, one irony has always fascinated and sometimes frustrated me. Alongside chronicling the wonders of the non-human world, we’re writing about people trying to fulfill very basic needs—food, air, water, clothing, shelter—in sustainable ways, but doing so leads us into a dense tangle of politics, race, gender, and class. Too...

Recognizing Eternal Moments in Narrative Nonfiction

A writer too sure of her material and destination can weaken her potential to discover new insights, ideas and connections as she writes. On its face, nonfiction seems more vulnerable to this than fiction and poetry. All three may begin with real-world events or memories, but fiction and poetry automatically release these events from the...

It Hurts to Go Home: Writing What Doesn’t Belong Only to You

I don’t remember the Pences’ pink magnolia tree until I’m looking up at it, pinching a fallen blossom between my thumb and forefinger until the petal bruises a light brown. My childhood home is across the street. I’ve just gone in for the first time in thirteen years, met the new father, the new son...

In Defense of Themelessness

Must an essay collection have a theme? “Theme” comes from the Latin word thema, which in turn comes from the Greek “proposition.”  A proposition sounds right. An essay proposes. It suggests. It tries and tests. It might argue, but counterarguments are addressed, even encouraged. An essay is not entirely set. It proposes, and the reader answers. Must an essay...

Genre as a Vessel for Presence

Fiction and nonfiction form poles at either end of a long continuum, and our work can slide fluidly along it. Here’s how it feels.  A voice begins to speak inside your head. Sometimes it talks about things that have actually happened to you; sometimes it conjures imagined creatures uttering strange things. Sometimes it sounds like...

The Vein of Jade: Restraint in Nonfiction

A mountain overlooks the Missouri River in Montana near Helena, and that mountain is called Mount Jessie by some, especially by those related to a woman who died in 1968 and whose ashes lay scattered on the mountain’s peak. Her parents owned a general store nearby, and when she was a girl she named the...

Chasing Our Elusive Voice

My writing partner of ten years was frowning. “The voice,” she began. “It’s formal and distant.” She stared at the manuscript I’d slaved over for months. “I can’t explain—it just seems off.” My friend had struck my literary Achilles’ heel. Voice is an aspect of writing craft I’ve struggled with for years. One of the...

The Diptych as Short-Form Memoir

In the Middle Ages, devotional paintings rendered on two hinged wooden panels—known as diptychs—were used to depict religious scenes for meditation and contemplation. Portraits of Madonna and Child were common, as well as important biblical stories, like the Virgin birth or Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion. Many diptychs were created on a small scale so they...

Schizophrenia, Dandelions, Cookies, Floods and Scabs: Alternate Approaches

We are trained from earliest age to be linear thinkers.  The world, we are taught, has a beginning, a middle and a conclusion. My toddler son ran to me, excited: “Mama, I made a story!” “Yes?” “One upon a time. There was. The end.” We read narrative obedient to the “upside-down checkmark” (tension, climax and...